I miss Chicago's worst movie theater | Bleader

I miss Chicago's worst movie theater



The Pipers Alley marquee in 2008
  • The Pipers Alley marquee in 2008
For several years before it finally closed down in 2011, the movie theater at Pipers Alley was likely the least respected in Chicago. The projection was frequently dim, the floors were sticky, many of the seats wobbled, and looking at the concession stand actually made you less hungry. It seemed to be managerial policy that the box office attendants wipe their noses before giving you change. The theater was, in short, a dive—but unlike the Logan Theater before it underwent its much-needed renovation, Pipers Alley charged multiplex prices for the compromised experience it offered. Yes, it still belonged to a chain, but most people I knew just assumed the powers that be at Loews had forgotten about it.

This derelict quality had its upsides, though. In its final years, the theater adopted an anything-goes attitude towards programming, booking movies that no other theater in Chicago would take. Their bargain hunting resulted in the Chicago runs of some interesting movies that fell in the interstices between mainstream cinema and art cinema: JCVD, Southland Tales, Abel Ferrara’s Chelsea on the Rocks, and a number of Bollywood comedies—orphan movies for an orphan theater.

The screens at Pipers Alley also offered something that’s harder to quantify. The grab-bag quality of the selections, the feeling that you were sneaking into the theater even when it was open: these things reinforced a quotidian aspect of moviegoing, offering a come-as-you-are refuge when you needed a break from better theaters. Jonathan Rosenbaum liked to assert in his writings for the Reader that movies were part of life; unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer theaters that encourage this way of thinking. Multiplexes that offer deluxe experiences with 3-D projection and surround sound and repertory houses that treat each old movie as an art exhibit to be savored feel like two sides of the same coin. In each case, the moviegoing experience is a self-contained affair, giving the viewer everything he could want in a single viewing before sending him home.

When you saw a movie at Pipers Alley (or, for that matter, the nearby Village cinema, which in the winter of 2006 displayed a sign reading "There is no heat in Date Movie—we're sorry," one of the more astute pieces of film criticism I've ever read), you were well aware that it was part of a continuum. After this screening, there would be others; they’d take you to different neighborhoods and different wobbly seats. And on the way you’d meet different people, be it on the bus between theaters or on the other end of the next snotty ticket you purchased.